Quietly, behind closed doors, online poker giant PokerStars has been readying one of its largest software upgrades in years. Now, months after pokerfuse first…

Quietly, behind closed doors, online poker giant PokerStars has been readying one of its largest software upgrades in years. Now, months after pokerfuse first revealed it was in the works, the company is at last rolling it out across its markets—and finally willing to talk about the update.

Codenamed Aurora, pokerfuse first uncovered the existence of new image assets back in December that suggested a major table redesign was in the works. Files and sound effects hinted at new, graphically rich table themes, including one for Christmas, and a rewrite of the old Saloon theme.

However, these themes never went live beyond the dot-net client, and after a brief initial press statement PokerStars stayed tightlipped—until now. The operator is starting to roll out Aurora to real money players; currently in Portugal, and soon into other markets.

Via an exclusive interview with Severin Rasset, Director of Poker Innovation and Operations, with Poker Industry PRO, we take a look behind the curtain at the operator’s major platform overhaul that will define the company’s 2019 product strategy.

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PokerStars first starting using the new game engine for the rich experience behind its poker-esports hybrid game Power Up and its built-in mini-game, The Deal.

“While the functional part of this is a bit technical, for our players the improvements will make their experience more interesting with higher resolution, realistic physics, crisp and clean graphics and smoother and more lifelike animations,” said Chris Straghalis, Director of Poker Product for PokerStars, in a statement to pokerfuse earlier this year.

Now, the company is starting to use Aurora for other games. First deployed in the dot-net client and later rolling out for real money games in Portugal, the new engine is set to power the entire table experience. It will roll out internationally in the coming weeks and months.

Every theme has seen tweaks, in very different ways. The classic theme, for example, is more minimalist, with a single orange glow as a backdrop to a dark green felt, whereas the saloon theme has become busier—with beer bottles, a sheriff’s badge as a dealer button, even animated smoke coming off a cigar at the table.

However, with some themes the changes are very subtle. The default table has seen very minor tweaks—a change to the buttons, a tweak to the colors—that can only be seen when compared side-by-side.

That’s by design. PokerStars wants the initial change to be “nearly invisible to players,” said Rasset.

“[T]he main goal when we do these kinds of things is that we want to take our time in making sure that it’s working properly,” Rasset, told Poker Industry PRO. “We cannot afford to find ourselves with something that would be crashing on a regular basis for real money players.”

“I really expect that players are just going to get really used to [it] and … that it will not create any disruption in their normal play,” Rasset continued.

The new engine will allow for rapid application development. “It’s much quicker to do the same things … it opens up a new realm of possibilities,” said Rasset. “If you spend one tenth of the time to do something, then you can actually start to envisage doing much more.”

This could include changes beyond the in-game experience at the table. The company is looking at upgrading the experience before you join the table, and in tournament lobbies. And the company is exploring more ambitious ideas.

“I would love to have more functionality within the client that we can quickly integrate,” said Rasset. “For example, just imagine that PokerStars School could become something that is more integrated within the client.”

When can you expect to play with the new Aurora? Rasset said that it would continue to roll out market-by-market, and by the third quarter of this year the company may be considering the “complete retirement of the legacy engine.” However, he was also quick to caution that there was no time pressure.

“Again, the beauty [of this] is that we have our options open on the table,” he added. “There is no particular pressure in terms of timelines to release something. The current tables are working perfectly fine, it’s just we want to aim for more … but has to come first with quality and reliability.”